Perfect Game Plan

At Hudson's on the Bend, What's Wild Is Wonderful

Hudson's on the Bend

photograph by John Anderson

Bluebonnets aside, autumn has to be the the most flavorful time in Central Texas. Our first cold fronts signal that we've weathered another long hot season and can start drinking red wine. Kitchen junkies can cook without fear of heatstroke, and we all look forward to the three-month eating binge that is the holiday season. The fall brings additional benefits to families with hunters in their ranks. Every few weeks, another hunting season opens, and skilled shots are rewarded with overflowing freezers and happy neighbors. In Central Texas, venison and quail temporarily replace the holy trinity of domesticated meats -- beef, chicken, and pork -- as long as the shooting's good and the game wardens lenient.

But the shooting can't always be good; sometimes even the best hunters return empty-handed. Luckily, all we Austinites have to do is pack up and head to the lake, to Hudson's on the Bend.

Located on RR620 just past the Mansfield dam, Hudson's on the Bend is an "Austin restaurant" only in the loosest metropolitan sense of the phrase. The subtle stone building sits near the lake's busiest thoroughfare, looking much like a typical homestead except for the telltale green and white sign advertising "The Most Civilized Game in the Southwest." But behind the unassuming exterior, Hudson's has developed a tradition of casual fine dining with an unassuming atmosphere and one of the most relaxing gardens in the Hill Country -- perfect for al fresco dinners in the cooler temperatures.

For the last 10 years, Hudson's has maintained a glowing national reputation built mainly on its chefs' imaginative use of wild game in a multifaceted fusion cuisine. Chef/owner Jeff Blank and chef Jay Moore incorporate a wide variety of culinary influences into a menu that's as eclectic as it is deep. While the menu offers high-quality domesticated meats and seafoods, it's just as likely to contain rarer offerings such as water buffalo enchiladas, alligator ribs, and tenderloin of wild boar -- animal names that most of us are more accustomed to seeing on reruns of Wild Kingdom. Novelty, though, isn't the reason for Hudson's notoriety, which is based on an often inspired menu, an exceptional wine list, and knowledgeable, courteous staff.

First courses include everything from Australian kangaroo prepared Jamaican style ($8.95) to Rattlesnake Cakes ($8.50). Particularly exceptional is the Hill Country Antipasto (portions for two; $16), which includes slices of boar tenderloin, ancho-cured duck breast, pepper-crusted antelope, and smoked "squaw candy" salmon. This plate reveals the approach that Hudson's takes to game: matching boldly flavored meats with equally intense sauces and condiments. Tender boar medallions and peppery antelope slices went well with a dollop of coarse-grained honey mustard combination, while the salmon and somewhat lackluster duck sprang to life with the addition of a plum/pistachio chutney. House-marinated vegetables -- chile-heavy baby corn, spicy cornichons, marinated tomato peppers -- rounded out the satisfying sampler.

Our more exotic starter, the jerked kangaroo, was a delicate balancing act of unlikely flavors. The Caribbean-peppered kangaroo tenderloin was immersed in a light-bodied chipotle cream sauce over linguine and fresh tomato. Despite the chipotle's pronounced heat and the spiciness of the jerk seasonings, the different components -- from tender kangaroo morsels to earthy Shiitake mushrooms -- maintained their distinctive characters while complementing the other elements. The only criticism of this dish was that there was perhaps a bit too much sauce -- a situation easily remedied by a few slices of Hudson's salty-sweet pumpkinseed bread.

The entrees, which run on the pricey side at $23 to $30, also managed to integrate seemingly disparate tastes into a stunning final product. The Stuffed Javelina Backstrap ($27) and Grilled Ostrich Tenderloin ($30) were each accented by a versatile porcini mushroom sauce and teamed with side portions of rich ancho-spiked mashed potatoes and lightly sautéed vegetables. The javelina rounds were stuffed with chopped smoked boar, roasted pecans, and various chiles, and the potent collection of tastes acted as the perfect foil for the garlic-heavy mushroom sauce. Again, the pairing of numerous heady flavors lit up our noses and taste buds with an amazing sensory experience. In comparison, the simple ostrich stood alone against the porcini sauce, which highlighted the sauce's richer flavors while also highlighting the stronger tastes and almost beef-like texture of the big bird.

But the starring entrée earned both our admiration and respect: backstrap of venison stuffed with smoked lobster in a shallow pool of guava and sour cherry sauce. From the first bite, we slipped into a trance that food enthusiasts dream of. The combination of savory deer meat and sweet lobster tail coalesced in perfect unison, while intricate smoke flavors danced around the edges. And the bright berry flavors of the sauce (cherry, guava, and a bit of raspberry?) hit the sweet-sensitive taste buds to round out each forkful. The experience intensified with the waiter's recommended wine: a 1995 Calera Pinot Noir ($34) with pronounced berry notes that accentuated the venison's initial impact. The result bordered on the pleasant side of hallucinatory.

In contrast to the other selections, the dessert offerings seemed less imaginative: the required cheesecake, apple pie, chocolate-dipped turtle pie. Our selections were tasty and well executed, if a bit anticlimactic compared to earlier courses. Given the size and quality of the menu, it would be tough to excel at every turn -- besides, after all that food, who's got room?

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